Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color provokes an interesting quandary to the language of cinema. The traditional three-act structure is not simply subverted, but completely rejected. It’s something of an oddity, so incoherently structured yet rousing viscerally. One could see the underpinning influence of other filmmakers, ranging from the nightmarish landscape of David Lynch, the coldly lit interiors of a Steven Soderbergh film, to Terrence Malick’s nature slumming. But Carruth’s images do not coalesce or unite in any clear thematic way. Upstream Color’s mesmerizing images eventually succumb to obscurity, where Carruth’s purposeful exclusion of exposition pounds its audience into comatic confusion.
Eliciting confusion is a particularly bold foray when shaping a film and it certainly strikes me as Carruth’s primary objective, an ambition blatantly expressed in his debut 2004 film Primer. That film’s deconstruction of the science of time-travel sparked interest for its science jabber that purposefully kept its audiences at bay – provided that contemporary cinema holds its audience’s hand in an effort to explain details, Primer achieved a measure of authenticity in an artificial medium. But even that film possessed a framework to understand its thematic discourse. Upstream Color’s formlessness is inviting to start, particularly given the sinister nuance of its opening images. But as Carruth subverts narrative expectations in every way, the feeling of confusion is transposed into a piling sense of aimlessness. A vile botanist and a captured blonde infused with a worm are some of the clearer touchstones of Upstream Color, but they are simply the dimly lit aspects of a pitch-black narrative. Most concerning is Carruth’s unsettling somberness that pulses through the picture’s runtime. Upstream Color can at times be viewed as absurd and even satirical yet the grim tone never lets up.
As impenetrable as the film’s surface may be, it does propose a compelling statement on cinematic interpretation, or rather, lack thereof. Are films meant to be understood? Can a film function purely on striking an emotive chord? Sequences in Upstream Color may arouse confusion, but the fluid nature in which the images progress inspire something more layered, albeit undecipherable upon initial viewing. As puzzling as Upstream Color may be, its obscurity has stuck with me for an extended period of time upon viewing. It’s certainly a conversation piece of a picture, though like the film, it’s a conversation with no clear end. Films that leave me in a state of confusion often motivate me to seek them out again – this is not the case with Upstream Color. What the film posits is a fundamental difference in cinematic approach, one where I can commend and even admire Carruth’s ambitions, but the final product is too cold and abrasive to ever revisit.